Pity the poor head with 85 threshold applications in his in tray

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
At four hours each, that's nine weeks' work. The new salary deal has brought heavy workloads, training walk-outs and confusion over assessment.

Phil Revell reports.

Chris Henstock has a bit of a problem. He needs a bigger in-tray. Already piled high with essential government pronouncements and advisory notices, his desk is about to groan under the weight of 85 applications from his staff for threshold assessment. He just could be the headteacher with the highest number of applications to process.

His school, Lutterworth Grammar in Leicestershire, has 125 teachers. A small number of eligible staff have chosen not to apply for the rise this year, but it still leaves Chris Henstock with what he describes as a "bit of a workload issue".

"Clearly, I'm in a position where I can apply for an extension till October," he says. But with an estimated four hours of work to assess each applicant, there is nine weeks' work to be done over the next four months, just on the threshold.

"Under any interpretation of the European Working Time directive, that's virtually all my working hours," he says wryly. He could delegate some of it, but will find it hard to do so.

"The final decision has to be mine," he says. "I feel a huge personal commitment to get it right for my colleagues."

Workload issues were just one of the topics raised by heads at the training conferences arranged by the Government during April. The conferences, held in soccer stadiums up and down the country, were not an unqualified success, with reports of trainers gabbling their way through endless overhead projector slides without giving heads time to ask questions.

At the London event, held at White Hart Lane and run by the private consultancy CfBT, there was a virtual walk-out by heads.

"A large number of people left early," says John Dunford, general-secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "Materials had been couriered to trainers the day before - clearly some were reading them for the first time."

Mr Dunford stresses that the Department for Education reacted quickly; by the second week the situation had been improved. Some trainers were dropped and the content was reduced to allow more time for explanation.

David Daniels, headteacher at Enfield Grammar School, was one of the CfBT trainers.

"I felt reasonably prepared to do the job I had to do," he says. "Opinions were mixed about the training: there were those who were dissatisfied with the whole principle of PRP. Those are hearts and minds which will take some winning."

Issues raised at the conferences were varied, but the position of people who worked in non-standard (mainly non-school) settings clearly raised problems that the trainers hadn't anticipated.

Centrally retained teachers, advisory staff, special needsco-ordinators, staff in secure units - for all these teachers, the template for measuring children's progress over time does not apply. Some do not have regular contact with a single group of children and others work in situations where progress isdifficult to measure. "Measures should be used that are appropriate to the situation the teacher is in," says Mr Daniels.

But that answer doesn't satisfy heads like Marion Smith, head of Thomas Willingale primary school in Debden, Essex, who argues that the process has not been properly prepared.

"What happens in nursery schools?" she says. "They blithely talk about other types of evidence, but what is acceptable?" She was also concerned about the implications for staff who failed the threshold test.

"If you get to point nine and fil to cross, you may as well issue competency proceedings," she says.

Yet some capable teachers, strong classroom performers, may be unable to demonstrate the whole-school impact and curriculum leadership qualities required to make the jump, she argues. And Mrs Smith is yet another headteacher concerned about the workload issues raised by the tight schedule.

"June 5 as the deadline for the teacher applications is thoroughly unreasonable," she says. "An additional half day of training has been organised for June 14, so it would be silly for me to start the assessments before then. But the end of term for me is July 19. I've got three weeks to do the entire staff of 21."

Some schools will be able to defer. Heads need to contact Cambridge Educational Associates, the consultancy managing the process. Deferment is possible when the head is newly appointed or where, as at Lutterworth, more than 40 staff apply.

"Other schools can defer until the autumn in exceptional circumstances," the consultancy said, "the serious illness of the head perhaps, or a school fire."

But the consultancy confirmed that the hundred or so schools facing an inspection over the next half-term will not be able to defer, leaving schools to cope with threshold applications, in addition to the mountain of paperwork expected by the Office for Standards in Education.

Denise McClellan is faced with that situation: an inspection in June at her primary school, St Michaels Church of England in Buckinghamshire. "My biggest concern," she says, "is that teachers who are anxious to get everything right for Ofsted won't have the time to devote to their threshold application."

Ofsted says it is aware of the implications of the threshold timing. "We have issued guidance to registered inspectors," said a spokesman, "to make sure they are aware of this. We would want them to be sensitive to the other demands being made on the school."

Cambridge Education Associates Tel: 01223 327888


The performance management side of PRP hasn't gone away. Nearly everyone agrees that it makes little sense to launch people through the threshold without a system in place: once teachers have gone through, they will not qualify automatically for annual increments, but will have to meet targets to qualify for future rises. But the Government's priority was to get money into teachers' pockets.

Harry Tomlinson, professor of education at Leeds Metropolitan University, who will be training the performance management consultants during the summer, feels there are benefits in getting the one-off "jump" through the threshold out of the way. He argues that once the process is over, heads might concentrate on building their performance management systems, which in future will have to deal with far fewer applications.

The one-day conferences to discuss performance management are scheduled between June 26 and July 14.

"We need to pick up some lessons from the threshold conferences," Professor Tomlinson remarks. "If you try to communicate too much information, there isn't any time to deal with questions."

Consultants will be in schools in the autumn, while the the additional autumn training day should be reserved for performance management issues. Under the new process, teachers are obliged to set their objectives by February 2001. Tomlinson is confident that the problems encountered previously with the implementation of appraisal in schools will not be repeated.

"Appraisal was either too cosy or too bureaucratic," he says."Those lessons have been learnt."

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